Marketing ethics is not a topic I typically focus on, but I think it’s one worth talking about, especially for companies that need to connect with the right audiences at the right time and avoid any backlash from messing up their marketing goals -- especially where kids are concerned.
Kids are a difficult demographic to market to, largely because public opinion and major media so often focus on advertising and marketing’s negative effects on children.
The Guardian, for instance, published an article in which Susan Linn, director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, argued that, “Advertising, in and of itself, is harmful to children." Marketing targets emotions, not intellect, Linn said. "It trains children to choose products, not for the actual value of the product, but because of celebrity or what's on the package.” Many others hold this same view.
Nonetheless, kids are an important demographic; and to some companies, an essential marketing target. The solution, then, is not to stop marketing if your brand appeals to children, but rather to discover ways to market and monetize to kids ethically.
When we think of marketing to kids, our thoughts generally go straight to fast food and entertainment, But it’s not just those market segments that are looking to improve their marketing to kids. What's more, in some cases, ethics dictate that companies not market to children at all. But if marketing is actualy ethically appropriate, there are best practices to follow.
Not that that's an easy topic, either: The polarity of companies that strive to work with these best practices might surprise you. Marijuana company Lola Lola, for example, is an interesting case study: It's one of those companies that have found that watching out for kids and teens’ best interests is actually good business. By recognizing the dangers inherent in early marijuana use, especially in recreational edibles, the company aims to protect young consumers; so it has refused to market to teens, period.
Lola Lola takes its decision not to market to kids a step further than almost any of its competitors. The burgeoning legal marijuana industry has actively been feeling its way through the legalities of marketing and selling its products. But Lola Lola has taken a counter-culture stand against the sale and use of un-regulated edibles, pushing the industry overall to develop stricter product standards, to protect children’s overuse and consumption.
On the other end of the spectrum, we see another brand (which couldn’t be more different) that has chosen to market directly to kids, but in the most ethical way possible. Clark Stacey, CEO of WildWorks, has spent years crafting safe online worlds for children. WildWorks’s flagship product Animal Jam, a major social network for kids in the United States, is continually tasked with making sure the game’s marketing materials are safe, age-appropriate and ethical in every way.
“All of our current marketing is planned around explorative play and a safe environment for our Jammers,” Clark Stacey, CEO of WildWorks. told me. “We work hard to offer real-life educational value, in Animal Jam, and have teams focused around the clock on maintaining a safe and fun environment.”
How should companies design their strategies once they decide that marketing to kids is appropriate, ethical, and advantageous? First, Stacey says companies need to understand how kids tick. WildWorks has been marketing successfully to kids for the past five years. Stacey has spent years crafting safe online worlds for children and determining how to appropriately and effectively reach his young customers, and not their bosses (a.k.a. the parents).
“Making content is fun,” said Stacey. “Kids can tell if you work for them, or if you work 'for the man.' If [the latter], kids see right through it. If it’s about fun first, then you can sneak in the good stuff.”
Here are a few strategies in marketing to kids that can produce great results:
1. Communicate with parents.
Make sure it’s easy for parents to see safety features and find out what their kids have been up to. Transparency is key. Recently, Animal Jam made its safety features more prominent on its landing page, because at the end of the day, parents are the decision-makers.
2. Encourage kids to advocate the brand.
Let the kids back up your brand. Kids make for a super-loyal customer base. Give them opportunities to create user-generated content. From fan-hosted blogs, which they can create, to art and essay submissions, kids want to express themselves. Use that.
3. Produce original content.
In the same vein, kids want to be involved. Use YouTube. Create downloadable content. Etc. Parents are valuing STEM fields more and more, so find a way to incorporate science, technology, engineering and math into your platform where appropriate, whether through digital downloads of ebooks or in-game educational videos.
These aren’t the only two companies that have chosen to market ethically, but both have established strong patterns for others to follow. Today’s children are smart, and it is imperative that brands that choose to market to kids also accept the responsibility to help their young customers recognize and properly process media messages they encounter.
As they do so, they should also display behavior that demonstrates their commitment to limiting any negative media targeting of youth and children. Using both strategies, all of us as entrepreneurs can help enable the next generation to be stronger, smarter, and more prepared than we were -- ensuring a better future for us all.